Cushion the Blow: How to Deliver News People Don’t Want to Hear
September 9, 2015 | Business and Careers
The only thing worse than getting bad news is having to deliver bad news. No wonder managers rank “giving negative feedback” as the second most difficult part of their job, right behind “not having enough time in the day,” according to management training and consulting company Rainmaker Thinking.
Delivering bad news is never easy, but it can be made less stressful. Whether you’re giving a less-than-glowing performance review, pulling a project from your team or communicating that the company isn’t doing well, you can learn to deliver unwelcome news in a way that makes it easier for everyone involved.
1. Lay the groundwork. Bad news is always worse when it comes without warning, so try to avoid the element of surprise. If you know, for example, that you’ll eventually be eliminating jobs as a result of your department’s process improvements, let your team know as much as you can as soon as you can. Though it might seem counterintuitive, you’ll actually minimize anxiety for both yourself and for the affected employees if you can say, “In June your role will no longer exist, so you need to start looking for a new job now.” Even if you can’t be that specific, be as open and honest as possible about what’s on the horizon. “Because we need to manage our business like everyone else does, you can expect some changes in the next quarter. We’ll do everything we can to keep you informed and let you know as soon as specific decisions are made.” The sooner you can begin to lay the groundwork, the better—for them and for you. Delaying the inevitable won’t make it easier.
2. Focus on a few key points. When it’s time to deliver the bad news, keep in mind that the person you’re talking to will have limited capacity for detail. So while it’s important to provide an appropriate level of context during a difficult conversation, don’t talk at length about all of the factors that were considered. For example, sometimes when I know I’m going to give a performance review that won’t be well received, I plan ahead for the three key things I want to get across. I may even sketch out an outline and take it with me into the meeting to make sure I stay on point. Then, if the person wants additional information or if follow-up is required, I’ll offer to provide it at a later date.
3. Practice the conversation. Once you’ve zeroed in on what you want to communicate, test-drive the conversation with a friend. Practice saying the words out loud, listen for your practice partner’s reaction and refine your message accordingly. By rehearsing the conversation, you’ll create a greater level of confidence in your ability to communicate difficult messages clearly and with grace. Even medical students practice giving bad news to patients because studies have shown that when delivering bad news, a physician’s attitude, communication skills and empathy play important roles in the coping and bereavement abilities of patients and their families.
I once had to tell a person she was being let go as part of a downsizing, and her response was, “This must be so hard on you. I can’t imagine that you have to do this, and I feel sorry for you.” I think she respected the position I was in because I had shown respect for her—by being honest about the situation and focused and empathetic during our discussion. In the end, that made it easier for both of us.